3rd Place, High School Essay Contest 2022
“Peanut butter cups can cause cancer!” proclaimed conspiracy theorist David Wolfe on Facebook in 2017. The claim is obviously dubious, but unfortunately, the article was shared almost 207,000 times in just days.1 The “information superhighway” has become too fast, with no regulation to assist with the identification and elimination of fake news. Wolfe’s bogus claim illustrates how easily lies can catch fire, but the real-world consequences of this flame can be much more dangerous. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is peddling lies about the integrity of the upcoming presidential election, claiming the election will be fraudulent, unless, of course, he wins.2 Closer to home, this refrain is eerily similar to those asserted by then-President Trump via QAnon and other election conspiracy theories, which ultimately led to the deadly Capitol riots on January 6, 2021.3 Misinformation has the potential to produce violent ends and is a transnational, transcontinental issue.
The world needs the Coalition to Protect Against Misinformation (CPAM). While propaganda has been unavoidable in the rise and fall of many nations, the nature of the spread of misinformation now hits harder and faster than ever. In rigid and potentially violent structures of power, like the military junta of Myanmar, this is even more apparent. In 2018, military leaders used Facebook to spread anti-Rohyinga Muslim propaganda, portraying the minority group as “terrorists.” It is estimated that 18 million Facebook users viewed this Islamophobic hate and dramatically augmented public support for the ongoing genocide of minority groups in Myanmar.4 Myanmar’s fake news campaign also has foreign origins, as most of the operatives of the campaigns were trained in Russia, learning to use psychological warfare tactics through social media networks.
Although many of these social media avenues of misinformation are based in the United States and could be subject to domestic regulations, even well-intentioned internal attempts to regulate false claims fall short. On many social media sites, English-language misinformation was flagged 70% of the time, while misinformation in Spanish was flagged only 30% of the time.5 These language-specific inconsistencies further foreign interference and misinformation, particularly among diaspora groups.
Given the international reach of misinformation, CPAM is a global solution to the fake news problem. The coalition will have two main goals: first, to develop a shared set of information integrity standards amongst the international community; second, to install independent programs to regulate information according to those standards. The Coalition shares design elements with NATO, which is described as an international alliance for the common defense. Consequently, instead of geopolitical defense, CPAM will defend against misinformation. Member groups, like those of NATO, would be comprised of democratic political systems that are committed to “fair treatment of minority populations” and an ability to contribute to counter-misinformation defense systems.6 Although member groups would be required to adhere to these guidelines, their influence, recommendations, and impact of regulatory programs would reach beyond to non-member groups and states.
Furthermore, this new Coalition will take a balanced approach to stop the cancer of misinformation and protect free speech. The Brookings Institution recommends that inter-governmental action should encourage independent journalism, while also calling on news organizations to “call out disinformation without legitimizing them.”7 The Coalition would do so by grading news organizations on the legitimacy of their claims, awarding an international “Seal of Approval” for journalists and publications. This can be implemented with cooperation among civil society groups. In Taiwan, crowdsourced groups fact-check information online; volunteer editors assign a rating and other volunteers can check this rating.8 The Taiwanese model utilizes a third party to prevent governmental interference, while inter-individual checks promote dialogue and cement the independence of fact-checking. CPAM will establish similar groups, with expertise in various subsets of journalistic reporting and language proficiency. Furthermore, to address less-than-journalistic sources on social media sites, CPAM would require large networking companies within member states to participate in a centralized reporting hub of practices for flagging misinformation, and committing to utilizing the expert groups established above to close the language disparity for suspected misinformation; this transparency will serve as a powerful solution to the worst-case examples illustrated above.9
Though some misinformation, like Wolfe’s peanut butter cup claims, are highly individual, much of the most dangerous misinformation is the result of foreign interference. To remedy this, the Coalition will have the power to ban state-funded media outlets that spread misinformation. This will take the lead of France’s new broadcasting regulator which can “revoke the broadcast rights of [media] outlets operating on French territory who are found to work ‘under the control or influence of a foreign state’ and ‘disseminate misinformation’”. 10 France’s framework has been effective in slowing foreign interference in elections, and its success can be replicated internationally with CPAM.
Though the idea of halting misinformation is admirable, this alone is not enough to attract potential members. To incentivize new members and check existing members, CPAM will modernize the historical approach of Airborne Leaflet Propaganda, an approach utilized in the 1990s to disseminate information in North Korea via leaflet-filled balloons.11 To engage this strategy, CPAM will provide funding for critical internet infrastructure as an incentive for membership to lower-resourced countries. In return, recipients of this support will consent to participation in the aforementioned hubs and grading of journalistic outlets will be prominently displayed, serving as digital “leaflets.” This exchange additionally supports the expansion of internet access for use in emergencies, which has been recommended to disseminate data in low and middle-income nations like Mexico, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.12 Internet infrastructure and the data it provides to the government is invaluable and would be a powerful incentive to join CPAM and its vision.
In conclusion, CPAM may be a powerful remedy to issues revolving around misinformation. The Coalition and its member groups would wield pointed power to protect information, and facilitate a better society in the age of the internet.
- “Fake News: Separating Truth from Fiction.” edited by Valencia College, 14 March 2022.https://libguides.valenciacollege.edu/c.php?g=612299&p=4251645.
- Cowie, Sam. “Bolsonaro’s Election Fraud Claims Spark ‘Unprecedented Crisis’.” Al Jazeera. (8 August 2021). Accessed 18 March 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/8/bolsonaro-election-fraud-claims-spark-unprece dented-crisis.
- McCarthy, Bill. “Misinformation and the Jan. 6 Insurrection: When ‘Patriot Warriors’ Were Fed Lies.” Politifact. (30 June 2021). Accessed 21 March 2022. https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/jun/30/misinformation-and-jan-6-insurrection-wh en-patriot/.
- Mozur, Paul. “A Genocide Incited on Facebook, with Posts from Myanmar’s Military.” New York Times. (15 October 2018). Accessed 15 March 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html.
- Paul, Kari. “‘Facebook Has a Blind Spot’: Why Spanish-Language Misinformation Is Flourishing.” The Guardian. (3 March 2021). Accessed 15 March 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/03/facebook-spanish-language-misin formation-covid-19-election.
- NATO. “NATO Enlargement and Open Door.” news release, July, 2016,https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160627_1607-factsheet-enlargement-eng.pdf.
- West, Darrell M. “How to Combat Fake News and Disinformation.” Brookings. (18 December 2017). Accessed 17 March 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-to-combat-fake-news-and-disinformation/.
- Davis, Raina, Bo Julie Crowley, and Casey Corcoran. “Civil Society: A Key Player in the Global Fight against Misinformation.” Harvard Kennedy School Review 19 (2019): 171-73.https://ksr.hkspublications.org/2020/02/07/civil-society-a-key-player-in-the-global-fight-a gainst-misinformation/.
- Valencia, Stephanie. “Misinformation Online Is Bad in English. But It’s Far Worse in Spanish.” The Washington Post. (28 October 2021). Accessed 21 March 2022.https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/10/28/misinformation-spanish-facebook- social-media/.
- Funke, Daniel, and Daniela Flamini. “A Guide to Anti-Misinformation Actions around the World.” Poynter. (31 October 2018). Accessed 18 March 2022. https://www.poynter.org/ifcn/anti-misinformation-actions/.
11. Mason, Richard. Low-Cost Options for Airborne Delivery of Contraband into North Korea. 2018. doi:10.7249/rr1379.
12. Mora-Rivera, Jorge, and Fernando García-Mora. “Internet Access and Poverty Reduction: Evidence from Rural and Urban Mexico.” Telecommunications Policy 45, no. 2 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.telpol.2020.102076.